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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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New Orleans Legal System Still Suffering Effects of Katrina

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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From the NY Times – Judge Steps In for Poor Inmates Without Justice Since Hurricane Katrina

The court system in New Orleans, largely still homeless and in disarray having lost most of the infrastructure on which it depends, is battling over the fate of indigent clients who, without public defenders, are in legal purgatory, unable to get a trial or even plead guilty.

Nine months after the storm, more than a thousand jailed defendants have had no access to lawyers, the judge says, because the public defender system is desperately short of money and staffing, without a computer system or files or even a list of clients. 

Handcuffed, shackled and wearing jailhouse orange, Mr. Dunn told the court that as the water rose, he spent four frightening days without food in the House of Detention, and was then moved from prison to prison, losing touch with his family.

In the nine months since the hurricane, he said, he has never even spoken to a lawyer. “I don’t have a lawyer,” Mr. Dunn said. “I never been to court.” Without a lawyer a defendant cannot even plead guilty.

Judge Arthur L. Hunter Jr.’s response has been to suspend prosecution in most cases involving public defenders. The district attorney’s office is naturally opposing the move. My favorite quote is from David S. Pipes, an assistant district attorney, “The proper solution for someone who does not have an attorney is to get them an attorney. Releasing them does not cure anything and does not protect their rights.”

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